A new blog for an old but crucial challenge
Guided by the findings of our surveys and reports, as well as the experiences of our staff members and partners in the field,
Freedom House has decided to launch a new blog that will offer comment and analysis on the state of, threats to, and prospects for global democracy. We are pleased to welcome you to the inaugural post of Freedom at Issue.
Recent developments in the Middle East remind us that freedom remains a question of critical concern for the billions of people living under nondemocratic regimes. At the same time, events in the region show us just how difficult the attainment of democracy really is, there and elsewhere. Ridding the world of “leaders for life” like Hosni Mubarak, Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi, and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali is demonstrably easier than building democratic systems that bring prosperity, security, and stability. The latter challenge raises questions Freedom House has grappled with since its inception: How does one develop a press that is free, responsible, and committed to democratic values? How can demands for justice for past crimes be reconciled with the need to move society and the economy forward? How are minorities best protected from the tyranny of the majority? How can true economic freedom flourish in a setting where cronyism and political clout have long held sway? Does the rise of religious influence in politics inevitably threaten basic human rights, especially gender equality?
Adding to the complexity of the problem, Russia demonstrated last week that even as Arab societies are shedding their leaders for life, other countries are still witnessing their anointment. Developments in Venezuela and elsewhere in Latin America are a clear sign that gains in freedom can be reversed. China’s Communist Party leadership has proven ingenious at devising ever more sophisticated methods for controlling news and rewriting history. Far from surrendering to popular demands for more freedom, the technologically savvy practitioners of a modernized, 21st-century authoritarianism are growing more determined to fight back. Meanwhile, many are asking what the United States can contribute to democratic development in societies that view America with suspicion or hostility, and at a time when many in America seem unsure of their country’s global role.
This last question stands out as particularly crucial. Later this month, Freedom House will mark its 70th anniversary. The organization was established in 1941, when the world was threatened by a powerful and malevolent totalitarian movement. Our purpose at that time was straightforward: to prepare the way for the involvement of the United States in the great struggle against fascism.
Since then, Freedom House has focused its energies on defending freedom from its most powerful and determined adversaries. During the Cold War, the principal enemies of democracy were communism, of whatever variety, and Soviet imperialism. Other forms of dictatorship, such as military juntas and authoritarian rule by postcolonial strongmen, had also become commonplace by the 1970s. After the fall of communism, an upsurge of destructive nationalism in the Balkans threatened the establishment of a pan-European democratic system. Over the past decade, much of our attention has been directed toward the “democracy deficit” in the Middle East and the emergence of a group of assertive and influential authoritarian powers elsewhere in the world.
In the evolving struggle to expand the list of countries that foster free institutions, individual rights, freedom of expression, and the rule of law, Freedom House has consistently looked to the United States to play a leading—often the leading—role. Our initial mission in 1941 was to mobilize public opinion behind American involvement in World War II. Today it is often forgotten that American entry into the war against fascism was bitterly opposed by respected personalities on both the right and the left. Our task was to alert the American people to the dangers that the Axis powers posed not simply to the people of Europe but to America’s vital interests and core values as well.
Because we believe in the centrality of American leadership, Freedom House has paid special attention to the state of America’s democratic institutions. Thus Freedom House denounced McCarthyism as a threat both to the rights of individual American citizens and to America’s reputation as a beacon of democracy for the world. Likewise, we opposed racial injustice as a great evil in its own right and as the Achilles’ heel of the U.S. democratic system.
The United States has been inconsistent, often slow to respond, and prone to making mistakes. It has experienced periods of self-doubt. Ultimately, however, it has always taken the actions required to extend freedom’s reach, and played a critical part in the democratic wave that transformed much of the world during the last part of the 20th century.
Will the United States continue to play a leading role in the global march toward freedom? The answer to this question is not at all clear. Since its creation, Freedom House has functioned as a bipartisan organization. Our core belief in bipartisanship as a sine qua non for American leadership in the freedom struggle—a conviction reflected in a board of trustees that remains balanced between Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives—has been vindicated again and again: in World War II, the Cold War, and other campaigns against tyranny.Today, unfortunately, bipartisan consensus on America’s foreign policy priorities is in serious jeopardy. The American economy, along with the economies of many leading democratic allies, has taken a severe battering, leading to rancorous debate on fiscal policy and calls to withdraw from a bewildering geopolitical arena. Part of the mission of this blog will be to reiterate the importance of unified support for global democracy to the well-being of all Americans, now and into the future.
The name of our blog, Freedom at Issue, has a distinguished pedigree. During the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, Freedom House published a journal, originally called Freedom at Issue and later Freedom Review, that provided indispensable commentary on the events and trends shaping the global struggle for democracy. It is our hope that this blog will perform a similar function, illuminating internal and external threats to both established and aspiring democracies, offering cross-country comparisons on important themes, drawing on Freedom House’s unique array of research data and on-the-ground activists, and generally stimulating discussion and debate on the broad range of issues that will affect the future of freedom in the world.